Stephen Sondheim 80th-Birthday Gala Celebration

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim in excerpts from Merrily We Roll Along, Company, Evening Primrose, Into the Woods, A Little Night Music, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Anyone Can Whistle, Sunday in the Park With George, Bounce

Maria Friedman, Graham Bickley & Daniel Evans (singers)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
David Firman

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 3 April, 2010
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

There are many contenders for the title of the “greatest American composer-lyricist of the twentieth century” and they could include Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerry Herman who have all written their own words for their music. The likes of Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe among others have to be eliminated because they only wrote either the words or the music. Cole Porter could never believe why it often took two people to write a song because he followed in the footsteps of the giant among American songwriters, Irving Berlin. Berlin, Porter and Herman have no equals in the sort of work they produced, which is mainly light musical-comedy songs, although Herman’s output has had its serious sides at times.However, for his chosen subject-matter alone, which is often dramatic rather than comedic, or sometimes both, Stephen Sondheim wins hands down in the best composer-lyricist stakes. His contribution to the American musical has been phenomenal, culminating in his receipt of multiple Tony Awards, not to mention the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for “Sunday in the Park with George”, an imaginary musical portrait of the French painter Georges Seurat.

Who else but Sondheim would even have thought of that as a subject for a Broadway musical? But, then, just look through his list of shows and you find an uncompromising assortment of subjects, from “Anyone Can Whistle”, about a town that cons its visitors with a fake miracle; through “Company”, about a man’s incapacity to commit to a relationship; “Follies”, about vaudeville performers trying to relive their golden days; “A Little Night Music”, a romantic comedy based on a film by Ingmar Bergman, described as “whipped cream with knives”; “Pacific Overtures”, or how America forced its way into Japan; “Sweeney Todd”, a musical thriller about a famous fictional serial killer; “Merrily We Roll Along”, in which the cast start out as cynical oldsters and progress back to their promising youth; “Into the Woods”, a compilation of cruelty as seen through traditional fairytales; “Assassins”, a roll-call of attempts to kill America’s presidents; “Passion”, a tale of obsessive love by an old woman for a young army officer; and “The Frogs”, a musical version of a comedy by Aristophanes that premiered in a Yale University swimming pool. Sondheim’s latest show, about the adventures of a couple of opportunistic brothers in the first thirty years of the twentieth-century, began life as “Wise Guys”, in a workshop production in 1999, re-emerged as “Bounce” in two stagings in 2003 and 2004 and finally had a short life as “Road Show” in 2008. There is a cast recording but the show has never come to the UK. Would you blame any theatre angel for thinking twice about investing in any of these ideas? Maybe not, but somehow the shows did get staged and have become part of the countdown in the best examples of the American musical in the latter half of the twentieth-century.

Over fifty years ago Stephen Sondheim had his first theatre hit, by writing the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”. Relatively unknown until then, he had hitherto written shows at university and also while under the tutelage of Oscar Hammerstein II who gave Sondheim a real grounding in how to write a musical. In his early days he adapted George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s “Beggar on Horseback” which was performed at college, Maxwell Anderson’s “High Tor” (which wasn’t – but it later appeared as a musical for television by Anderson and Arthur Schwartz, with Bing Crosby and Julie Andrews). He also tried with “Mary Poppins” but found it impossible to adapt. Later on he provided songs for the plays “I Know My Love” and “A Mighty Man Is He”, and incidental music for the play “The Girls of Summer” and has contributed music and songs to several films such as “Stavisky”, “The Seven Per Cent Solution”, “Reds” and “Dick Tracy”.

In the theatre “West Side Story” was followed in 1959 by “Gypsy”, the story of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, for which he wrote only the lyrics (to composer Jule Styne’s music), because its star, Ethel Merman, wouldn’t trust an untried composer with a new score. It was eventually filmed but without Merman. Rosalind Russell played Mama Rose when her husband acquired the film rights. However, it wasn’t long before the first musical with both music and lyrics by Sondheim came along. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” appeared in 1962 and was an enormous hit in both the US and in London. Stephen Sondheim had arrived. If he never writes another word or another note, then Sondheim will still be assured of a place in the pantheon of the all-time-great American artistic creators. He was eighty years old in March 2010, so is entitled to retire, if he wants to, although he says he has no plans to give up yet. He has, however, still left us with more than enough great shows and this is what the recent Sondheim celebrations have been all about. In some ways it is his songs that are the stars of the show.

New York went to town recently with a star-studded concert in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. In London it was Cadogan Hall that turned up trumps with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under David Firman celebrating Sondheim. The three singers, Maria Friedman, Daniel Evans and Graham Bickley, are all old-hands at Sondheim.

The Sondheim Birthday Gala opened with a suite of songs from “Merrily We Roll Along”. Based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it deals with the relationships and careers of two songwriters, Franklin Shepard and Charley Kringas over a period of twenty years up to 1976 but progressing in reverse chronological order back to 1957. They begin as embittered older men and trace how they got here from there, how they split up at one point, how they got together again, their personal and business relationships, their hopes and dreams, their successes and failures. Shepard breaks up the song-writing partnership to become a film producer. Most of the songs, whether upbeat or in a minor key are imbued with sadness. There is irony in ‘Good Thing Going’, presumably because we know that Shepard will achieve success but at a price; yes, he has made enough money but has lost his friends along the way. More irony comes in ‘Old Friends’ (“Here’s to us! Who’s like us? Damn few!”) because we know the friendship won’t last; the song ‘Good Thing Going’ ends with “we had a good thing going… going… gone”. The three singers brought the original show to life in songs and snippets of dialogue, complete with the years in question projected on a giant screen with photographs of the cast looking, as the show goes back to the 1950s, younger and younger, although none of them was even born in 1957. It’s one of Sondheim’s great scores (just one among so many) and it is perhaps time for another revival. London hasn’t seen it since the Donmar Warehouse staging ten years ago.

Maria Friedman was then perched above the stage in the organ loft for ‘Getting Married Today’ from “Company”, only it is not she who is not looking forward to her wedding but Daniel Evans as Jamie (it was Amy in the original show) which added a certain frisson and poignancy to Bickley as Paul, as he said “my soon to be married wife” to Mr Evans who savoured every line of ‘Getting Married’, a brilliant tongue-twister of a song that’s played at top speed: “Clear the hall / Cause I’m not getting married /Thank you all / But I’m not getting married / And don’t tell Paul / But I’m not getting married today.” ‘Barcelona’ is a duet between hero Robert and air-hostess April after a one-night-stand in which Daniel pleads with Maria to stay but she has to get a plane to, yes, Barcelona. When she finally gives in, he regrets the whole thing in a cleverly conversational lyric that sums up succinctly the desperation of the boy-meets-girl situation. ‘I Remember Sky’ is from a television musical called “Evening Primrose” about people who live in a department store and only come out at night when the shop is closed. Graham sang this plangent song in which the singer yearns to see the real world again. ‘Giants in the Sky’ is from “Into the Woods”, a portmanteau of several fairy-tales collected into a single narrative. Like many Sondheim characters, Jack the giant-killer has to face his fears full on. Daniel Evans sang this strangely unnerving song with equanimity.

“A Little Night Music” yielded ‘You Must Meet My Wife’ with Graham as lawyer Frederik telling old flame, actress Desiree, how happy he is with his new young wife, even though their relationship has not yet been consummated. To his “You must meet my wife” her response is “Let me get my hat and my knife…” This was followed by ‘Send in the Clowns’, arguably Sondheim’s most-famous song, a coda for Desiree as she tries to salvage her former relationship with Frederik. This version included the extra lyrics that Sondheim provided for Barbra Streisand’s “Broadway” album. It is a song that never fails to move, and Maria sang it with both tact and immense feeling.

“Follies” contains irony even in its very title, as it parodies not only the sort of songs that old vaudevillian performers might have sung, but it also examines the follies in their daily lives. ‘Beautiful Girls’ is a paean to the showgirls of the past, ‘Too Many Mornings’, a duet for two partners revealing the regrets of their married life together. “Waking and pretending I reach for you” – that’s the stab in the back. ‘Buddy’s Blues’ is another duet in which the character Buddy bemoans the fact that he only wanted what he couldn’t have, and vice versa. ‘Losing My Mind’ is a torch-song by a woman who thinks she married the wrong man. Maria Friedman gave a heartfelt performance of this and so too of ‘Broadway Baby’, which details the ambitions of a Follies girl desperate to find work.

Following Don Sebesky’s skilful medley of the main songs from “Sweeney Todd”, Friedman reprised her comic act as Mrs Nellie Lovett in ‘The Worst Pies in London’. For this she kidnapped an innocent victim from the audience as she enumerated the shortcomings of her pastry-making skills: “Is that just revolting / All greasy and gritty?/ It looks like it’s moulting / And tastes like / Well, pity…” Daniel, as her young helper Tobias, offers to protect Mrs Lovett in ‘Not While I’m Around’, and the section ended with more comedy in ‘A Little Priest’, as Nellie thinks of a way to get rid of Sweeney’s dead bodies and also make a fortune for her pie shop. The songs in “Sweeney Todd” prove how skilful Sondheim is when dealing with the darkness of drama, the poetry of pathos and the chuckles of comedy. He is a true master wordsmith for all lyrics.

David Firman’s arrangement of the title song from “Anyone Can Whistle” was the penultimate song in the gala. Originally sung by Fay Apple, the nurse of a mental asylum, it sees Sondheim writing about someone who is highly talented in some ways but who, like Bobby in “Company”, cannot commit. Daniel again surpassed himself in his interpretation. ‘Sunday’, from “Sunday in the Park With George”, is the chorus that ends Act One of the musical. It provided a suitable finish, as it did in the New York Sondheim celebration, an anthem acknowledging the talent of Stephen Sondheim.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was in fine form, with the first two acts using mainly a jazz style combination of instruments – lots of brass and all very highly powered, the music played with great vivacity and panache. The strings came on for Act III for the richer, more melodically orchestral numbers which also worked very well. David Firman always gets the best out of his players particularly in the field of music theatre.

A final coda found Maria Friedman singing ‘Isn’t He Something?’ from “Bounce” or “Road Show” or whatever it might be called should London ever get to see it. The UK has successfully staged every other show by Sondheim, so it would be a pity to miss out on this one. The Cadogan Hall gala concert, with its mix of brilliant material performed by singers and musicians committed to the genre, managed to, as Mrs Lovett might say, “leave you wanting more”. With Sondheim you cannot have too much of a good thing going…

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